Smile Politely

Natural and supernatural

One of the best things we do here at Smile Politely — or at least one of our favorite things — is bringing attention to local artists whose work is deserving of not just attention but praise. With each one of these SP profiles (Sprofiles?), we hope not only to highlight the talented performers in the C-U area but also to demonstrate, once again, just how big a part of our cultural fabric the arts continue to be.

If you’ve seen Karen Hughes on stage, either in a supporting role in last season’s Parkland College Theatre production of Wait Until Dark or as the lead in Parkland’s current play, The Sparrow, then you know that she is an actor worth watching. As the somewhat awkward, somewhat mysterious figure at the center of the play’s high school allegory, she is both natural and supernatural in equal measure.

But you can read about that when SP’s review of The Sparrow publishes tomorrow. In the meantime, get to know Hughes a little better with this conversation we had prior to last Thursday’s opening.


Smile Politely: First off, tell me whom you play in The Sparrow and give me a little background on this character (without giving away any spoilers).

Karen Hughes (pictured, left): My character is named Emily Book. She is a high school student returning to her hometown to finish her senior year after having been away for ten years after a terrible tragedy occurred. She’s scared to go back, and she’s very self-conscious about people discovering that she has special powers.

SP: I think it’s entirely possible that people who frequent local theatre venues will recognize your face, but they might not know your name. Tell us the last three roles you played, prior to The Sparrow, and what you liked most about each.

Hughes: This fall I played an actress who couldn’t act in Acting Can Be Murder (directed by Ellen Strauser) in Rantoul. It was a lot of fun to be part of a very silly comedy, and it’s always an honor to work with Silvana Bennardo, who played the lead. Last February I played a little girl in Wait Until Dark (directed by J.W. Morrisette) at Parkland. It’s hard to say what I liked most, because everything about it was wonderful; I was absolutely in awe of J.W. and of the rest of the cast. Last Christmas I played Sawyer in Miracle on 34th Street (directed by Angela Schneider) with Bah Humbug Productions. It was very exciting to play a villain!

SP: At what age did you start acting? What was it that made you want to try?

Hughes: My parents signed me up for an Urbana Park District play when I was in first grade, and I fell in love with it. I participated in Park District productions and in shows with a children’s theatre group throughout elementary school and junior high. In high school, theatre became even more special to me: I was painfully shy, and it was a way to be a part of something and to interact with people without having to think of what to say (because the words are right there in the script!).

SP: The Sparrow will be presented in Parkland’s new black box theater. What has the rehearsal process been like? Does a new space create any particular challenges?

Hughes: This will sound terribly corny, but it’s so exciting to be part of the first show in a brand-new space that every rehearsal feels as special and magical as an opening night. It’s a beautiful space (the upper walls are painted a gorgeous shade of purple), and it is very simple and elegant. For the first two weeks we rehearsed on Parkland’s main stage, and, while it can be something of an adventure to translate blocking from one space to another initially, it was pretty easy to make the transition. Perhaps the biggest challenge has been waiting for the space to be completed—for instance, there’s a structure built onto one of the walls that will be an important part of one scene, but since it was just added a day or two ago, we haven’t been able to incorporate it yet. 

SP: Feel free to gush about your director now.

Hughes: There are not enough positive adjectives to adequately describe Gary Ambler (pictured, right). He is absolutely brilliant and incredibly creative, and he is such an inspiration. He is kind and patient and warm, and it is a tremendous privilege to work with him. His shows are so beautiful!  He is a genius at encouraging his actors and bringing out their best possible performances. I admire him very, very much and am constantly amazed by how effortlessly he produces such magic onstage. (Well, obviously he puts a great deal of work into it; he just makes it all look effortless.) He always has a smile for everyone and is one of the most serene people I have ever seen.

Really, everyone involved with this show is wonderful: Yen Vi, our stage manager, is professional and organized and amazing; and Alicia, our choreographer, is creative and enthusiastic. The whole cast is incredible. Chelsa Zych, who plays a mother, makes me cry because her scenes are so powerful. David Heckman, who plays a father, is excellent in absolutely every role he brings to life. Jelinda Smith, as the head cheerleader, is sweet and funny and energetic and athletic. Joey Moser plays the “cool” teacher perfectly, with warmth and exuberance. Amber Sarno, who is a high school senior, does an awesome job playing a 10-year-old boy. Warren Garver is hilarious as the high school principal. Matthew Henry is very moving as an understanding bus driver. Jude Love will break everyone’s heart as a devastated grandmother. It is hard to keep a straight face when Jace Jamison delivers his lines as the crazy basketball coach; he is terrific! Andrew Sullender is fantastic as a popular basketball player. Sam Reiss, Jamie Simmering, Ryan Fleming, Teri Sturdyvin, and Ruth Zielke transform from basketball players and cheerleaders (who can do amazing stunts!) to dancers to concerned citizens fluidly. Not only is everyone extremely talented, but they are all very nice. I love this show so much!

SP: Final question: If age, gender, and all other casting restrictions were removed from the equation, what role would you love to play some day?

Hughes: Aldonza in Man of LaMancha. I admire her strength and her willingness to learn to look at all of the beauty in the world, even when she has experienced so much of its ugliness.


The Sparrow will continue its run Thursday, February 26th through Sunday, March 1st. For reservations, contact the Parkland College Theatre box office at 217-351-2528 or via the Parkland Theatre website.

Portraits by Bernard Wolff; cover image by Scott Wells/EddieScott Photo

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